TORONTO — After eight seasons in the NBA, DeMar DeRozan knows that the playoffs require more than just nailing down the Xs and Os of the playbook. He's going to use the final two games of the Toronto Raptors' regular season to get himself ready on every level.
"Emotionally, spiritually, physically, locked in completely," said DeRozan on Friday night. "And understand that it gets real after these next two games."
DeRozan certainly looked ready in the Raptors' 96-94 win over the Miami Heat, scoring 38 points to go with six rebounds in Toronto's last home game of the regular season. He broke Vince Carter's franchise record with his 31st 30-point game of the season.
The Raptors final two games are on Sunday in New York against the Knicks and Wednesday in Cleveland. Toronto's opponent in the first round of the playoffs is still to be determined. There are five possible teams as the Eastern Conference's final standings shake out: Atlanta, Milwaukee, Chicago, Indiana and Miami.
"Come next weekend, it's a whole different dynamic of basketball," said DeRozan. "That's the best part of the year, that's what you work for, to be playing late April, going into May and so on.
"When you're a competitor, you look forward to it."
Although the Knicks are well out of the post-season picture, the Heat provided a real test for the Raptors and closing out the regular season against the Cavaliers will also give Toronto a taste of playoff basketball.
"Continue what we're doing, continue to focus, being physically and mentally ready for the speed of the game, the physicality of the game. The way I thought we were tonight," said head coach Dwane Casey on what his Raptors have to do to prepare. "These are great situations for us. We don't have practice time, there's not a lot of time to really work on things.
"Fortunately/unfortunately, the games are our practices."
Canadian point guard Cory Joseph came off the bench with 14 points and three assists for Toronto (49-31), which cut the idle Boston Celtics lead in the Atlantic Division to 1 1/2 games. Kyle Lowry had 12 points, six assists and seven rebounds in his first game back in Toronto since wrist surgery on March 1 forced him to miss 18 games.
Lowry had returned to the Raptors lineup on Wednesday, scoring 27 points with 10 assists and five rebounds in their 105-102 win in Detroit but mentioned earlier Friday that he was sore. After beating the Heat, however, he was brimming with confidence.
"I am ready," said Lowry, smiling. "Boy, I tell you, that was a good question."
Former Raptor James Johnson led the Heat (38-41) with 22 points and 10 rebounds. Goran Dragic added 18 points.
A Hassan Whiteside alley-oop dunk with 4:43 left in the fourth quarter tied the game 82-82, but DeRozan responded with a three-pointer on Toronto's next possession.
Whiteside came right back with a hook shot, but a pair of free throws by DeRozan, and stiff defence from the Raptors leading to back-to-back layups by Lowry and DeRozan, made it 90-84 .
Lowry waved his arms to encourage the sell-out crowd of 19,800 at Air Canada Centre to keep chanting M-V-P as DeRozan sank two free throws. Miami replied with two made free throws by Dragic and Whiteside, and a driving layup by Johnson cut Toronto's lead to 92-88.
Casey thought the Raptors didn't handle the pressure well down the stretch, but added that playing against a desperate team like the Heat is good to prepare Toronto for the post-season.
"No question, that is what is good for us," said Casey. "To be challenged like that, to be in tough situations against pressure, against physicality, it gets us ready for what's about to come."
DeRozan's driving layup made it 94-88, but Wayne Ellington drained a three-pointer with 5.1 seconds left to play for the Heat. DeRozan closed out his record-setting night with a pair of free throws, although Tyler Johnson made one last three-pointer for Miami in the dying seconds of the game.
Notes: DeRozan addressed the crowd before the game and thanked them for their support all season. ... The Raptors wore their blue and white alternate jerseys styled like the Toronto Huskies from the inaugural 1946-47 NBA season.
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John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press